Governmental Auditors and Their Tolerance for Ambiguity: An Examination of the Effects of a Psychological Variable

By Gupta, Parveen P.; Fogarty, Timothy J. | The Government Accountants Journal, Fall 1993 | Go to article overview

Governmental Auditors and Their Tolerance for Ambiguity: An Examination of the Effects of a Psychological Variable


Gupta, Parveen P., Fogarty, Timothy J., The Government Accountants Journal


The study of the psychological nature of workers has a time-honored tradition in management. The belief that workers can be made more productive if they are better understood has not escaped those researchers who study auditors. Most of this attention, however, has focused on those who practice public accounting, to the complete exclusion of auditors who work in governmental accounting and auditing. Within the framework of public accounting a wide range of psychological properties such as locus of control, need fulfillment and personality type has been considered and ultimately related to learning ability,(1) turnover(2) job satisfaction and job involvement,(3) information importance,(4) judgment confidence,(5) field dependence,(6) reactions to different types of audit opinions(7) and other behaviors. However, little, if any, empirical research has inquired into the tolerance of ambiguity of practicing accountants. The fact that the literature in cognitive psychology provides a long and rich historical description of the tolerance for ambiguity both as a mediator and an instigator of people's behavior represents a gap in our knowledge of understanding the effect of practicing accountants' tolerance for ambiguity on various aspects of their work.

Therefore, this study examines a key psychological characteristic-tolerance for ambiguity-of governmental auditors by exploring the relationship it may have with several factors pertaining to the management of staff auditors on a number of audits in the public sector. More specifically, this study explores the effects of ambiguity intolerance on (1) control and coordination mechanisms, (2j perceived level of difficulty, variability and complexity in an audit and (31 degree of perceived interdependence on the audit team supervisor or the other audit team members.

The analysis presented in this paper suggests that whenever possible governmental audit team supervisors should strive to assemble an audit team by matching the psychological make-up of their staff auditors to the nature of the individual tasks to be assigned to them on an audit. This "match" is believed to enhance the overall performance of the audit team as well as would result in increased job satisfaction and lower turnover in the ranks of the governmental staff auditors. In the next section, we review the key variables mentioned above.

Key Variables

a. tolerance--Intolerance of ambiguity:

'Tolerance for ambiguity' as an emotional and perceptual personality variable was first conceptualized by a sociologist named Else FrenkelBrunswik in 1948.(9) It is a standard psychological variable that has been used extensively in research attempting to differentiate individuals in the workplace. This psychological construct suggests the existence of a continuum between an ideal type of psychological indifference to poorly structured conditions and another of extreme sensitivity to an uncertain environment.(10) An individual with a high tolerance for ambiguity is able to perform effectively in conditions that lack a great deal of precise information about important phenomena.

On the contrary, the performance of a person with a low tolerance for ambiguity is suggested to be greatly compromised by the same conditions of vagueness and unfamiliarity. Ambiguity-intolerant individuals, "cope with their psychological conflicts by means of repression and denial, and tend to perceive not in terms of the actual complexity of the stimulus situation, but in terms of fixed, extreme, conventional and preferable dichotomous categories."(11)

In other words, ambiguity-intolerant individuals have a great difficulty in conceiving or approaching a problem in more than one way. Typically, they cannot accept or incorporate the existence of two diametrically opposed concepts and as a result tend to distort their perceptions about reality and thereby deny the existence of any stimuli that may threaten their internal harmony or create some sort of uncertainty in their environment. …

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